Thursday, August 18, 2011

Former State Department Official Matthew Hoh Talks About Afghanistan

Former State Department Official Matthew HohBy LINDA MAGID Published: August 18, 2011 @ 3:18pm

Matthew Hoh, who in 2009 famously quit his State Department post in Afghanistan to protest U.S. strategy there, spoke on August 11th as part of the Dallas Peace Center’s dinner lecture series, and he didn’t mince words about how he thinks the war in Afghanistan is going.

“Afghanistan is a disaster.”

Hoh is a former Marine Corps captain who served six years in Iraq and worked as a civilian for the Department of Defense in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, he is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and the Director of the Afghanistan Study Group. “I agree with (U.S.) objectives. The problem is our policy will not achieve those objectives,” Hoh said.

To an audience of about 50 people, Hoh shared the “cold, hard facts” about Afghanistan and proved in simple terms that the Middle Eastern nation continues to be a graveyard of empires.

U.S. objectives for the Afghanistan War are twofold: 1. Defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliates; and 2. Stabilize Pakistan and safeguard its nuclear weapons. At this point, U.S. strategies do not lead to either of these objectives.

The most obvious problem is that Al Qaeda isn’t in Afghanistan. According to Hoh, “On June 21st, Obama Counterterrorism Coordinator John Brennan said that we haven’t seen a threat from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in seven or eight years.

“Al Qaeda is a network of individuals and small cells that is loosely connected around the world by an ideology that basically floats across the Internet as an ideological cloud.” Hoh pointed out that members of Al Qaeda, unlike other organizations, have only one common demographic: they are Muslim. Other than that, their country of origin, skin color, financial background, mental state, and marriage status are all different.

“What connects these 2,000-4,000 people is that they are Muslims and that they adhere to some idea that they want to be part of this epic sweep in history.” Hoh reminded attendees that there are around 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.

Given that Afghans are nearly 100% Muslim, night raids performed by Special Operations forces make sense in the abstract: surprise citizens in their homes with force to either find possible insurgents or scare people out of joining insurgents. In reality, this strategy is pushing Afghans to the Taliban and the insurgency, which are growing rapidly. (The two groups overlap but are not the same.)

According to Hoh, the insurgency replaces those they have lost with neighbors and family members who witness the raids. “They feel violated and scared,” making them easier to recruit.

Evidence for a growing insurgency is clear. Its financial logistics and operational chains are fully intact. Rather than being limited to the south and east of the country, they can now be found in the north and west. Coalition forces find up to 53 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) a day. “And those are only the ones we find,” Hoh added. Right now, the war this year is shaping up to be as violent as it was last year, which was the deadliest for Americans so far. Currently, the war has a ratio of 10 soldiers wounded to 1 killed, a statistic that masks the high level of violence. That statistic does not reflect veteran suicides (Hoh believes it should).

Additionally, Insurgents have an effective assassination campaign that hits government officials whenever they want, exposing weakness in the Afghan government.

Hoh defined the Karzai administration in damning terms: “It’s not a system. It’s a government that has a shell of democracy or a veneer of democracy over it and the skeleton is individual power brokers that are connected through a corrupt patronage network.” Elected officials (perhaps the term should be put in quotation marks given the corrupt nature of both recent elections) are “drug lords, warlords, child rapists and war criminals.”

Because the government is not a true system supported by a strong network throughout the country, when an official is assassinated any semblance of government in that area collapses. It is a very effective way to decrease Karzai’s power and increase insurgent recruits.

Another blow to our success in Afghanistan is the lack of progress made on the country’s infrastructure regardless of the amount of money spent so far. Out of $90 billion pledged, coalition forces have spent $50-60 billion. “We have not built a system, but we’ve just built, again, shells of development. It is not sustainable, not helping the common person.” Hoh explained that the money is just a conduit to corruption, a conduit to feed the patronage network, and it only fuels resentment for the United States.

He further points out that 90% of the Afghanistan economy is from foreign assistance, and only the drug trade prospers: it is the only industry that has any trade value, has a labor force, and can get credit for business growth (in this case for seeds and fertilizer).

The country has not improved its roads, cold storage or electrical system. The White House public relations message is that real progress has been made because urban Afghans have on average two cell phones.

Hoh questioned whether that is truly a sign of us winning the war. “What (do cellphones) actually mean in terms of development and real sustainability, real betterment in the quality of life for all Afghans, not for a select few in some of the urban areas?”

The breakdown in our strategy for defeating Al Qaeda seems obvious, but what about securing Pakistan?

The drone campaign in Pakistan has tripled under the Obama administration, killing 700 militants. Sounds promising. Yet, according to Hoh, only 2% of those killed were high value targets, and only 2 of them were on the FBI’s watch list. At the same time, drones have killed 500 Pakistani civilians.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that number at a minimum of 385 civilians killed, with 44% of those being children. During the Bush administration, 1 in 3 civilians killed was a child.

The Obama Administration claims, “there hasn’t been a single collateral [civilian] death” since August 2010.

With Pakistan as a Taliban sanctuary, the U.S. cannot make real progress in securing the country without putting U.S. troops and escalating the war. “I don’t think we will see that,” Hoh predicted.

If the U.S. and its allies cannot meet the primary objectives of the war with the current strategy, then what strategy might? Hoh does not advocate complete withdrawal. “If Afghanistan is a house of cards, the U.S. is not just the most important card. We are the table the house stands on.”

Instead of withdrawal, Hoh says mediation is the key. “The Obama administration and the military leaders understand that this is not a military war but a political war.” Senior members in the Obama administration see that a change is needed, like pushing for a political settlement with the insurgents and expanding Afghan government inclusiveness, but those changes have yet to be made.

The first step in changing from military-driven policy to a political policy is to admit that the U.S. is involved in a civil war and that the war is multi-sided and multi-layered. Due to our participation, we have chosen a few sides against other ones. By moving to a mediation role, the U.S. would have to abandon its partnership with the Karzai government and not take any sides.

A second step is to begin contact with insurgents and find out what their grievances are, similar to the strategy the U.S. military used in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. Hoh explained that the insurgents are not monolithic. “The insurgency is in many cases fueled by legitimate grievances that can go back 30 years or just 2 weeks.” Like the Iraqi insurgents, the insurgency in Afghanistan is not about international terror but about resentment, disenfranchisement and marginalization from the political process.

Our largest hurdle to enacting a political policy is our overall U.S. foreign policy, which is based on intervention and containment, both remnants of the Cold War. For example, the U.S. military has bases all over the Middle East to counter terrorist groups, yet terrorist groups are individuals and small cells, not entire nations.

For regular citizens who want to push for a new strategy, Hoh advised to keep up public pressure through calling into radio shows, writing letters to newspapers and our elected officials, and donating money to organizations trying to end the war (see list of organizations below). Most importantly, said Hoh, is to convert people to “our side.” Without this kind of activism, Hoh painted a scary picture: “The Hawks in D.C. will say in three or four years that we’ve tried every thing with Iran, the only thing left is military strike.”

When asked how to counter the popular meme that to question U.S. policy in the war equals not supporting the troops, Hoh’s answer was clear: “That’s our responsibility.

“I speak with my counterparts in Europe and my friends speak with counterparts in Asia, and they are looking at this country like we are complete fools. We spend $1 trillion a year in security, the same troops keep serving in our wars…Yet every year our education drops and our health care drops (on the international stage) and our infrastructure gets worse…We have 800 bases around the world and yet we don’t have jobs for those vets when they come back home…It’s not sustainable for our kids and our grandkids.”

Hoh challenged, “A person who is saying ‘if you don’t support the policy you don’t support the troops’ never served in the military.”

“Our troops will do anything we ask of them,” he continued. “They are never going to question it. It’s our responsibility to make sure we are only sending them to fight and die when it is absolutely necessary…It’s the right thing to do.”

At the closing of the event, Kelli Obazee, Executive Director of the Dallas Peace Center, revealed that two of her young adult children served multiple terms in Afghanistan and Iraq, and both of them suffer from extreme post traumatic stress disorder.

“This fight for me is one of a personal matter,” Obazee shared.

Considering the tremendous impact this war has on our troops and our country, it should be a personal matter for us all.


Organizations working to end the War in Afghanistan:

The following groups are very good for lobbying and taking care of veterans:

This organization fights war contractors’ lobbying efforts to keep defense spending high:


Listen to KERA 90.1 talk show THINK

Krys Boyd, host of the KERA 90.1 talk show Think, spent an hour with former State Department official Matthew Hoh last Wed. August 10, 2011 discussing the state of the Afghanistan war and the future outlook for U.S. involvement in that country.

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